The Sins of Kalamazoo

From the long-ago poem about Kalamazoo by Carl Sandburg:

Best of all
I have loved your kiddies playing run-sheep-run
And cutting their initials on the ball ground fence.
They knew every time I fooled them who was fooled and how.

Best of all
I have loved the red gold smoke of your sunsets;
I have loved a moon with a ring around it
Floating over your public square;
I have loved the white dawn frost of early winter silver
And purple over your railroad tracks and lumber yards.


Though I’ve had this blog for nigh unto 5 years, there’s probably a story or two about myself I’ve somehow neglected to tell.

For three years in undergrad I worked at the 7-Eleven across the street from campus. I worked second shift, 4 to midnight or six to 2 am until I graduated. This job shaped my undergrad experience at Western (much as my job in the dining hall shaped my U-M college experience), imposing a discipline on my days and isolating me from my peers. I’m not sure why I stuck at it so long. It was fairly easy and fairly well-paid, but it was somewhat disheartening basically preying on people’s vices — peddling nicotine, alcohol, and sugar. I had a boss who was something of a wanker, too.

Nonetheless, there were a few really fascinating episodes in the day after day grind of the job. On two occasions my senior year we inadvertently helped fuel block parties that turned into nasty, violent riots in the neighborhood. The image above depicts one of those events, where police were called out and repelled by rocks and bottles, then were followed by a riot squad with full length shields, clubs, and tear gas.

Anyway, I used to get into bed after work and while I was winding down I would turn on Jazz with Bob Parlocha on the local NPR station. I really missed that and now I find you can stream his show over the web. Good times.

Cedar Village Apartments, East Lansing

Another product of the MSU student ghetto. Cedar Village is the site of the 1999 incident after a basketball loss.

East Lansing Police Chief Tom Wibert said there was no getting around the use of tear gas early this morning to control a violent crowd at the Cedar Village apartments.

Police are calling the violence that erupted at Cedar Fest overnight a riot, and Wibert said suspects involved in the riot could face expulsion, prison time and fines. Between 3,000 and 4,000 revelers attended the event, according to police estimates.

A couple years ago I was pushing some research on student ghettos and violent incidents like this, but I got no love from the conferences I submitted to. There were two events like this my last year of undergrad at Western Michigan University. WMU had two student ghettos, one somewhat urban — houses and apartment buildings near the center of town, porches, through streets, sidewalks — and the other suburban — no curbs, no through streets, large front yards. Both incidents happened in the suburban area even though the concentration of people and parties was similar in both neighborhoods. Through observation (I was right there for both events and I’ve seen Cedar Village), I’m pretty confident that urban form and planning have a great deal to do with these types of occurrences. They need to run traffic through these streets. 4000 kids can’t and won’t gather in a crowd if cars are driving through at 30 mph. Parking is another issue — while there is some on-“street” parking, in a grid system the line of parked cars forms another barrier between the potential crowds.


Oberon is not coming back to Chicago. Bell’s Beer probably facing a lawsuit. Dale very unhappy.

Last fall, Larry Bell yanked the beers that bore his name out of Chicago, where they enjoyed a loyal following, rather than see the rights to market them here sold to another distributor. He worried that his specialty beers would get lost among the distributor’s mass-market brands.

Though Illinois accounted for 11 percent of his sales, Bell left the state and entered new markets such as Virginia and Florida.

“I didn’t feel that they [the distributor] were the right fit for us,” says Bell, who founded his brewery, now based in Comstock, Mich., in 1985.

The Illinois law that forced the issue in the first place (which I had thought created just a one-year waiting period) in fact means that the old distributor maintains distribution rights to Bell’s. (How can this be? Don’t contracts expire?) You will recall Todd Leopold’s common complaint that liquor distributors in Michigan are among the highest campaign donors and have the most favorable legislative protection of any industry in the state. Not just Michigan, I guess.

If there was ever a time I was interested in smuggling, it’s now.

Lament for a Kalamazoo Coffee Shop

Water Street, oh Water Street. You’ve got the best damn coffee in Kalamazoo and are probably the reason I hate Ann Arbor coffee so much. Why is everyone else here a 40-something downtown professional arts type or stay-at-home wife? Why do the students (even the summer remnants) hang out at Coffee Works, the crappy shop on the west side of campus or Rocket Star, the pretty good cafe on the east side? Why are all the conversations here about taking care of ailing mothers? Why is all the good stuff taken over by the Bobos?

In short — WTF?

Housing Starts in Cities I’ve Lived In

Housing Starts
Originally uploaded by urbanoasis.

Portland, OR: Not doing so bad. Kalamazoo, MI: Hurting all around. This chart is from data from the National Association of Home Builders showing March 2007 vs. March 2006. Statistics are for whole metro areas.

It’s not surprising to me that multi-family dwellings are doing better in Portland and Chicago, but it’s quite surprising to me that multi-family dwellings are doing so poorly in San Francisco compared to single-family jobs. In Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor, the low-hanging fruit of open land has been scooped up and, with the declining Michigan economy, there’s not a sufficient market to develop the tougher parcels.

Blast from the Past

From an editorial I wrote 4 years ago as opinion editor of the Western Herald.

The Detroit Tigers are in trouble.

The Tigers lost their Hall of Fame announcer to retirement. They lost almost two-thirds of their games this season. They have lost more than 20 percent of their attending fans from last season. The Tigers have lost nearly everything that makes the team special and exciting to the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan.

What the Tigers do have is an opportunity.

The Tigers, in the last three years, have drawn seasonal attendances ranging between 1.5 and 2.4 million fans, with an economic impact on the Detroit metro area upwards of $120 million, according to Major League Baseball and Detroit-based Comerica Bank, respectively.

In addition, the Tigers maintain a psychological hold on the state. The team’s history in American sports is so rich and runs so deep, that to speak of many aspects of our present life is to allude to the Detroit Tigers.

The development of the state, the city of Detroit, American sports as a big business and baseball as a leisure activity of enduring tradition all involve the Tigers in some way. The growth of the auto industry fueled the rise of the city of Detroit, after its origins and function as a main maritime port throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Of the forms of entertainment which arose to amuse the growing city, professional sports stands as the most prominent in modern society. One of baseball’s top teams historically (despite their current ineptitude), the Tigers contributed to the current free agent frenzy and hyper-commercialization of the game as much as any, with the possible exception of the New York Yankees. The behemoth that baseball has currently grown into is due in large part to its prominent stars and top teams, both of which Detroit has had many. Too, the prudent stewardship of John Fetzer for two decades brought the state a pair of world championships and enduring stars who provided summers of idyllic enjoyment to families throughout Michigan. The family ties which Detroit baseball helped knot still hold fast our memory.

As the city of Detroit has perhaps lost its grip on the country’s industrial artery, so have the Detroit Tigers slipped from their formerly dominant ways. Rumor has it that the club is in economic trouble, despite a beautiful brand-new ballpark and a bloated payroll. Perhaps most unbelievable of all is that the last winning season in Detroit was in 1993.

A shadow no longer looms over the institution of the Detroit Tigers. Dark clouds have enveloped the franchise, and rays of sunlight are few and far between.

However, with the interview of near-mythical Tiger hero Alan Trammell for manager, and the robust intentions of Dave Dombrowski as president and general manager, Detroit is perched upon a precipice of potential.

It has been said that the Tigers’ chief problem was that there was nothing to draw fans to the ballpark in the upcoming year. History, the Tigers’ chief asset in the past, was no longer on the team’s side. All of the homegrown fan favorites had either retired or been traded away, and even the seeming anchor of the Tigers, Ernie Harwell, just set down his microphone for good.

Dombrowski’s resolve and Trammell’s class and experience may be the necessary ingredients, along with the growing downtown renaissance movement and one of the premier parks in the country, to redevelop the Tigers club into a cultural icon and top tourist destination for the state, instead of the fallen organization it now is.

The next year the Tigers lost 119 games.  Then they signed Pudge Rodriguez and went 72-90 in 2004 and 71-91 in 2005.  I count the most important factor in the Tigers’ resurgence as the replacement of Randy Smith with Dave Dombrowski.  After that, it was the expansion of the Tigers’ payroll ($82m in 2006 vs. $55m in 2002) by a good decision-maker, eg not paying Bobby Higginson 7 million dollars a year to hit .260 or additional millions to Damion Easley, only to (rightly) cut him a year later.

Zoo Life

I headed to downtown Kalamazoo yesterday to tool around the place and do some work in a coffee shop. I remember again my many laments that Western Michigan University is not closer to downtown Kalamazoo. Despite its being overpriced, Ann Arbor has two things going for it — walkability and free wireless internet.

Downtown Kalamazoo is home to the world’s greatest magazine store, Michigan News Agency. I take a trip there every time I am home because it’s got it all — much better than Borders or Barnes and Noble. It’s also home to the world’s best brewery, Bell’s (sorry, Leopold Bros). While I cannot vouch for its being the world’s best, it also has a damn fine architectural salvage store, The Heritage Company. In addition, it also has a damn fine coffee shop — Water Street Coffee Joint. The last 3 of these 4 attractions are semi-walkableon the far east edge of downtown; all you have to do is brave several lanes of one-way traffic, and several empty lots as you get there. You also have to get there, which requires a car, since Kalamazoo is, except for a few pockets, a much less pedestrian friendly city. (Check out the numerous surface parking lots on the Google map.)

However, these problems also provide the opportunities for improvement. Kalamazoo has been as aggressive and more successful than Ann Arbor in experimenting with downtown development. A downtown parking ramp went up without crying from downtown-adjacent neighborhoods. This is in part because Kalamazoo was a big city when Ann Arbor was a small town — there’s more (de-)industrial space between the CBD and the neighborhoods. Condo redevelopment has been faster and less contentious, and is more affordable as well. Did I mention cost of living is about a third lower?

Here’s a New Year’s prediction — by 2010, Kalamazoo will be a better place to live than Ann Arbor (if it’s not already).

Another Anti-Daily

Columbus, Ohio, as you probably know, is home to Ohio State University. The New York Times reports that the OSU student newspaper, The Lantern, is getting some competition from a for-profit corporation.

I say good. When I worked at WMU’s Western Herald, we found competition in the Kalamazoo Gazette, the city’s afternoon daily. The Gazette sucked then and still sucks now, in much the same way that the Ann Arbor News sucks. The Gazette just wanted to inflate their circulation numbers so they could charge national advertisers more and didn’t tailor their coverage to students in any fashion. It seemed to be more or less a flop. However, I would have welcomed a serious challenge to the Herald, because we could have used the competition to make us develop some actual reporting skills. While I was opinion editor and a columnist, our news editors sucked — they didn’t even know what was going on in the city generally, let alone having the wherewithall to do some investigative reporting. As the author of the daily editorials, I was regularly stymied by having to wait for the news department to do a story on a topic before I could editorialize about it, which could take days or weeks.

From what I’ve seen, campus newspapers generally suck (with the Michigan Daily being merely mediocre), so to anything that can help better inform students and/or increase total newspaper readership, I say “bully!”